Commission leaves energy grants program

PARKERSBURG – The Wood County Commission on Thursday voted 2-1 to walk away from federal Department of Energy grants awarded for the SMART Energy Solutions Program.

Commission President Wayne Dunn, who spearheaded the program, cast the lone dissenting vote.

The county in January was awarded two $10,000 grants from the energy department, which required a $2,000 local match for each grant. No money has been expended from the grants.

Through the program, education and energy assessments for middle-income homeowners were to be provided in a partnership with the Energy Assessment Program at West Virginia University at Parkersburg. Students in the program are paid to conduct the energy audits.

After concerrns were raised over the program, the commissioners discussed whether to stay in or pull out of the grants, facing the possible loss of future grant funding, or auditing citations if the program continued.

Wood County grant coordinator Toni Tiano helped Dunn with the grant application, but when she offered her services to administer the grants, as she does for most of the other county grants, she said Dunn refused her help and said he would handle it himself.

“There was a red flag raised when we learned you had set up a checking account in the county commission’s name without our knowing or authorization. There was a red flare that went up when we found out you hired the office manager from your dental practice to coordinate the program,” Commissioner Blair Couch said.

“We set aside some funds some time ago for this program. I suggest we dedicate those funds to pay any outstanding bills from the program. I’m not sure what all is left unpaid at this point, but I think we need to review outstanding requests for payment, pay those from the funds set aside and step away from the grants,” Couch said.

“We can notify the Department of Energy there were technical difficulties encountered, but we need to step away from the grants, and let them know we might reapply later. Then we’ll have a clean slate moving forward,” Couch said. “But if we do reapply we need to make sure everything is run through the county’s guidelines for checks and balances.”

According to county records, about $48,000 set aside earlier by the commission remains in the county budget and has not been spent. In January, the commissioners, with Dunn abstaining, voted to turn over more than $48,000 remaining from a 1990s housing program to the new energy project.

The 1992 multi-county bond housing program had been closed out.

“The Department of Energy is behind the program; they want information. There are up to four other groups that have grants. I’m preparing a report; they have no problems with it or with us getting the money. If we need an extension, they said we could request one,” Dunn said.

County Administrator Marty Seufer, who was asked by the commission to contact the grant coordinator, reported Thursday he was advised: “They feel everything needs to be resolved before they will release any payments from the grant; everything needs cleaned up. They are aware of the concerns.”

At the last meeting, Dunn said WVU-P students doing the energy audits needed to become county employees. Prosecutor Jason Wharton expressed concern with students driving their personal vehicles to audit sites, having no agreements signed by homeowners who were having their homes assessed, insurance coverage for the students and other liability issues he said were not being addressed.

“That has been resolved. I met with Gary Thompson at WVU-P and they have taken care of that. If we continue as it was, WVU-P is taking care of the students as employees; they are paying the wages for the audits,” Dunn said Thursday, noting that left only one employee at issue.

Dunn earlier retained his dental practice’s office manager to coordinate the energy program.

“She’s done a great job; it was a temporary job and it’s almost over,” he said.

She has been paid $2,000 and Dunn said she was promised $4,000. The grant periods end at the end of September.

“At this point, her contract ends in less than two weeks,” Dunn said. “I think we need to continue with the program; at this point it’s almost a done deal; we just have to meet their requests. Everything from this point is fine.”

Wharton earlier said because the program coordinator was paid with a check with the county commission’s name on it, she was a county employee. That meant she would have to comply with IRS and other regulations.

During an earlier meeting, the commissioners were informed to comply with grant agreements, they needed to bring all the employees in the program under county auspices and use county policies and procedures.

The grants required a minimum of 20 audits to be done before the end of September to be in compliance. Dunn paid for three of his properties to be audited, but said Monday they were not part of the grant.

Wharton said the three audits were listed under the grant. An audit was also done for Thompson. Wharton asked if he had paid for his audit; he said he had a canceled check to show he did. Wharton said the ledger turned in did not reflect the payment.

“If you don’t do what the grant agreement says, you could either have your hands slapped, there could be audit findings, and once that happens that goes to every potential grant the county applies for in the future, and they will see the county has problems in the capacity of grant management,” Tiano said.

“I don’t know of anything that’s a problem; everything is fine,” Dunn told fellow commissioners.

“Sometimes it’s easier to cut your losses, pay the bills, and move forward to next year,” Tiano said.

Couch said he still did not have a clear view of all the outstanding bills.

“We have deviated from the grant budget; the county’s purchasing guidelines were to be followed, and they were not; there are a lot of things we can’t fix because we already did them,” Couch told Dunn.

It was reported earlier the commissioners had never officially accepted the grants; there was no order authorizing Dunn to sign the grant on behalf of the commission. Wharton pointed out the documents were signed on a day that was a county holiday when the commission was not in session.

Commissioner Steve Gainer said he was unaware of several issues.

“I assumed everything was all right. I didn’t realize you weren’t using Toni for the grant. I know you are an honest, good man but you were doing things that weren’t in line with the guidelines,” Gainer told Dunn.

“I thought everything was OK. If there were communication problems, that was my fault,” Dunn said.

“That’s why there is a time set aside on the commission agenda for commission reports, when commissioners are to update each other on matters. There were lots of opportunities to tell everyone about the checking account,” Wharton told Dunn.

“I don’t think at this point we can retroactively approve something that’s already been done. We are just trying not to impact future grant opportunities,” Couch said.

Wharton said he felt the commission moving away from the program “cuts down on risks.”

Dunn had originally kept records relating to the program at his home, and was writing checks he signed himself, including some made out to himself. Records note those checks were for reimbursement of phone time and other expenses which he said he paid for out of his dental practice funds.

In early August, after Wharton wrote the letter asking for a review, the commissioners voted to stay with the program. At that time, they asked Dunn to turn over documents relating to the program to the clerk’s office and from then on to run paperwork through the county procedures.

County Clerk Mark Rhodes confirmed the records were turned over, but they were copies, not the originals.